Kelly and Kornienko Tapped for Year-Long ISS Expedition

By the end of the Shuttle era, the International Space Station entered a period of transition from construction to utilisation. When Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko board the outpost in early 2015, they will take utilisation to a whole new level, working to gather the required medical baseline data for missions beyond Earth orbit. Photo Credit: NASA

After months of speculation, veteran spacefarers Scott Kelly of NASA and Mikhail Kornienko of the Russian Federal Space Agency were today announced as prime candidates for the long-awaited year-long expedition to the International Space Station in 2015-16. The two men—who have both undertaken previous long-duration missions to the ISS—will commence formal training in Star City early next year, with an anticipated launch in the spring of 2015. Current schedule projections indicate that Kelly and Kornienko will be joined for a portion of their stay by Japanese astronaut Kimiya Yui and perhaps also by English soprano Sarah Brightman if she flies as a paying “space tourist”.

Whilst it was always obvious that a number of candidates existed for both the US and Russian posts on the year-long expedition, particular emphasis was given to Peggy Whitson, who stepped down as Chief of the Astronaut Office in July, amid great speculation that she was the most likely contender. In recent weeks, unverified rumours noted that a “medical issue”, perhaps related to cumulative radiation exposure across her two previous long-duration missions, may have ruled Whitson out of the flight.

Scott Kelly works with the Microgravity Science Glovebox aboard the International Space Station’s Destiny laboratory during his time as commander of Expedition 26 in December 2010. Photo Credit: NASA

Scott Kelly currently serves as Chief of the ISS Operations Branch of the Astronaut Office. He has been with NASA since April 1996 and was selected alongside his twin brother, Mark, as a Shuttle pilot. Three years later, in December 1999, Kelly became the first pilot in his class to fly into space on the STS-103 mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope. His involvement in long-duration ISS operations commenced in March 2001, when he was assigned as Whitson’s backup on the Expedition 5 mission. Six weeks before the loss of Columbia, in December 2002, he was named to command STS-118, an ISS construction mission, which eventually flew in August 2007. Shortly after his second flight, Kelly re-entered expedition training and launched aboard Soyuz TMA-01M in October 2010 for a five-month tour of duty. He initially served as an Expedition 25 flight engineer and, in November, upon the return to Earth of the previous crew, he assumed command of the station and kicked off Expedition 26. During the course of his stay, his sister-in-law, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, was shot in Tucson during an attempted assassination. Kelly returned to Earth as intended in mid-March 2011. At the end of his mission, he had accumulated a total of 180 days in space.

The year-long expedition in 2015-16 will thus be Kelly’s fourth space flight and will earn him a new credential as the undisputed US space endurance record-holder, with around 540 days in orbit. This will greatly exceed the achievement of current US record-holder Mike Fincke, who has spent 381 days in space, spread across three missions. It will also mark a quantum leap forward for Americans in space. The present longest single mission by a US astronaut was by Mike Lopez-Alegria in 2006-7, who spent 215 days off the planet during Expedition 14. The quantum leap is perhaps best illustrated by a glance at the worldwide space endurance record table: Mike Fincke currently occupies 20th place, behind 19 Russians, but when Kelly returns from his year-long voyage he should jump into somewhere around 11th place. This is a remarkable achievement, when one considers that for more than two decades the American endurance record stood at just 84 days from the Skylab era and not until Norm Thagard’s four-month flight to Mir in March-July 1995 was it broken. Since then, America has moved forward in leaps and bounds: Shannon Lucid spent six months in orbit in 1996, Mike Foale accrued more than a year in 2004 at the end of his second long-duration mission, and more recently Peggy Whitson became the first woman in history to spend a cumulative year of her life off the Home Planet. In 2015-16, Scott Kelly will leap yet further.

So too will Mikhail Kornienko, who made his first flight to the ISS in April-September 2010, spending 176 days in orbit as a member of Expeditions 23-24. A former paratrooper in the Soviet Army and accomplished mechanical engineer, Kornienko was awe-struck by his experience of living away from Earth. However, he missed the sights and scents of home. “I missed trees,” he told an audience upon his return home. “I even dreamt of them; I even hallucinated. I thought I smelled a real fire and something being barbecued on it! I ended up putting pictures of trees on the walls to cheer up. You do miss the Earth there.” Accompanying Kelly for the long expedition, Kornienko will become only the fifth Russian in history—after Vladimir Titov, Musa Manarov, Valeri Poliakov and Sergei Avdeyev—to spend a full year aloft on a single mission.

Mikhail Kornienko displays fresh tomatoes, brought to the International Space Station by the visiting STS-132 crew in May 2010. Photo Credit: NASA

At present, the year-long ISS flight, which will span at least Expeditions 43 and 44 and probably even 45 and 46, is described by NASA as a crucial next step toward President Obama’s directive of a voyage beyond Earth orbit in the early 2020s. Its medical importance is already clear and it is expected to yield significant baseline data on the physical and physiological changes inherent in the human organism during long missions. “We have gained new knowledge about the effects of spaceflight on the human body from the scientific research conducted on the space station, and it is the perfect time to test a one-year expedition aboard the orbital laboratory,” said NASA ISS Program Scientist Julie Robinson. “What we will gain from this expedition will influence the way we structure our human research plans in the future.”

The assignment of Kelly and Kornienko is exceptionally exciting, as the ISS moves from the doldrums of the post-Shuttle era and into one which can at last be termed the “pre-BEO era”, for much of NASA’s research seems to be heading firmly in the direction of preparing for our first exploratory mission beyond Earth orbit in almost five decades. Cynics have argued that Russia’s support for the year-long expedition has little to do with exploration, or even human life science, but is purely engineered to rake in profit from jumpstarting its Soyuz tourism programme. Only last month, Sarah Brightman—famed for her roles in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats and Phantom of the Opera—announced her intention to train for a mission to the ISS in 2015.

Extending his congratulations to Kelly and Kornienko, NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations William Gerstenmaier noted that the men’s “skills and previous experience aboard the space station align with the mission’s requirements” and added that a year-long flight would “expand the bounds of how we live and work in space and increase our knowledge regarding the effects of microgravity on humans as we prepare for future missions beyond low-Earth orbit”. Vladimir Popovkin, head of Roscosmos, pointed out the difficulty that was faced selecting Kornienko from a wide pool of experienced cosmonauts. “We have chosen the most responsible, skilled, and enthusiastic crew members to expand space exploration,” he said, “and we have full confidence in them.”

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